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October 25, 2016
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River rescuers: Making the Delaware a safer place

National Park Service (NPS) emergency rescue personnel were on the scene within minutes following an accident on the Delaware River on August 23, 2009.
TRR photo by Sandy Long

UPPER DELAWARE SCENIC AND RECREATIONAL RIVER — After only one year into her job, Katherine Szupillo of the National Park Service was on patrol at the Shohola rapids. The spot is one that is hidden from the road and has very few houses nearby; if one were to need help on the river, very few people would be able to see. Luckily for one boater, Szupillo was on hand to witness his boat capsizing in the rapids and come to the rescue.

“A group of canoers come through, and they were all the way on the far side of the river,” said Szupillo of the day. “We’re watching them and we say, ‘they look like they know what they’re doing.’ All of the sudden right at the top, one of the canoes flips over; the waves were so big that day.” The man fell out of the boat and swam through the rapids. When he got to the bottom, even though it was midsummer, he was hypothermic.

Szupillo and her co-worker pulled him out of the water, got his boat and emptied the water out. Szupillo put him in her canoe and paddled him down to their Barryville office where he was able to get in an ambulance. He was ok.

On a summer day, hypothermia may not be on anyone’s mind. But Szupillo warns that it can happen, especially when the river height is up because of rain or a dam release. She says it doesn’t have to be cold water or weather. All it takes is a breeze or some clouds and if you’re already wet, it will take the heat out of you. She says they deal with hyperthermia through the entire summer. On the other hand, heat stroke is another concern. Szupillo says that if you are feeling hot, simply jump in the water, and make sure to stay hydrated.

If you are going through rapids and fall out of your boat, you want to float on your back with your feet in front of you. Stay up river or to the side of your boat, so the boat doesn’t run you over, which Szupillo says if the boat is full of water it is almost like getting run over by a small car. The first concern is you; worry about the boat, paddles and gear last. Wait until the bottom of the rapids to get your stuff. If you end up in the rapids, don’t stand up, even if it’s only waist deep. Szupillo warns that the river bottom is not flat, it has rocks, branches and crevices—all things your foot can get stuck in. This is called a foot entrapment, and Szupillo says it’s common and very dangerous.

Peter VanSlyke is a member of the National Canoe Safety Patrol (NCSP), a volunteer organization that supplements the National Park Service’s presence on the river by using professional level training skills to come to the aid of boaters in need. VanSlyke of Deposit, NY, joined the patrol in 2004 after going on canoe trips like the Delaware River Sojourn and doing citizen rescues. In 2012 he received a Lifesaving Award from the Upper Delaware Council.

The rescue took place in August 2011 at Skinner’s Falls. Four friends in their late 50s and early 60s from Queens and Long Island decided to take a river trip. VanSlyke was on patrol and saw one of the women walking toward the canoe with a walker, and kept an eye on them. The four started paddling down the river, and immediately upon entering the rapids, both canoes flipped and suddenly all four friends were thrown into the river. VanSlyke jumped into action, rescuing Anita, the woman with the walker, first, and then single-handedly rescuing the other three, pulling them to safety on a rock.

Anita sent VanSlyke a letter, and part of it reads: “I can never forget your heroism saving my life last summer on the river. You will forever be my guardian angel, and I am eternally grateful that I am still alive today.”

National Park Service Educational Specialist Ingrid Peterec has said of the NCSP, that they are “truly the unsung heroes of the Upper Delaware.”

It’s not always the professionals who make river rescues. Many locals have experience on the river, and know what to do in an emergency situation. Sage Ranze of Milanville, PA was sitting at the bottom of Skinner’s Falls when he saw a couple flip over their canoe at the end of the rapids. They continued to float down the river without making an effort to swim or get back in the canoe. Ranze swam out to them and pulled the canoe to shore as they clung to the sides of it. Ranze said they were scared and out of their element, and if he hadn’t rescued them they “probably would have floated all the way to Narrowsburg.”

Remember to stay safe this summer, and thank the unsung heroes of the Delaware River.

Facts and statistics:
The river claims an average of two drowning victims per year, yet there has never been a drowning with someone wearing a properly fitted life jacket.
More than 50% of the drowning victims are swimmers (not boaters).
Thousands of people enjoy the Delaware River each year.

Always wear a properly fitted life jacket
Never swim alone
Never attempt to swim across the river
Beware of currents, drop offs, and submerged obstacles
Never fight the flow—go with the current, making your way to one shore or the other.
Wear shoes that protect your feet

[A mandatory wearing of life jackets goes into effect when the river is above six feet at either the Barryville or Callicoon gauge. To obtain current river conditions including the river height go to the park’s webpage at or call the River Hotline at 845/252-7100.]

Information from the National Park Service